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Iraqi troops supported by an American battalion have begun “clearing operations” in Samarra, isolating the city by sealing a berm that rings the east side of the city.

The operation comes some three weeks after gunmen killed the city’s mayor and nearly two months after attackers destroyed the two minarets of a sacred Shiite shrine in the city.

Once Iraqi troops clear the city, “we plan to work with the city government of Samarra and the local tribes to deny Al-Qaeda future safe havens and to revitalize the city of Samarra through a large scale reconstruction effort,” U.S. Army Lt. Col. Viet Luong, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, said in a news release.

The new operation includes some 1,000 Iraqi troops, along with the U.S. battalion.

Since the mosque bombings on June 13, more than 2,500 soldiers and police have been deployed to the city.

U.S. officials said the governor of Salah ad Din province — which includes the city of Samarra — approved the operation “after multiple visits to the city and a series of consultations with the city government and” Iraqi security forces.

“During the past week, the national police, also known as the Askariya Brigade, with help from local contractors sealed a pre-existing berm on the east side of Samarra and established two robust checkpoints, which are manned by Iraqi army troops, to isolate terrorist forces,” a U.S. military news release read. “The checkpoints do not hamper or deny the entrance of supplies into the city, and citizens are allowed to move freely throughout the city.”

The mayor of Samarra, Abdul Hamid Saleh, was killed July 11 when unknown gunmen stormed his house and shot him dead. Saleh had been appointed to replace the old mayor in May, and was to coordinate the rebuilding of the Askariya shrine, which had been damaged in a previous attack in February 2006. That earlier attack set off the spiral of sectarian killings in Iraq.

While little has been reported about the city since the June bombings, several attacks were reported in the immediate aftermath of the mosque attacks.

In mid-June, gunmen and bombers launched coordinated attacks at Iraqi police outposts around two miles from the shrine.


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